European Sculpture & Works of Art

Bronze Sculpture Through the Ages

By Sotheby's
From objects for every-day use to highly refined collectors’ items, our December sale of Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art presents a range of bronzes illustrating the material’s diverse history.

B ronze has been one of the most frequently used materials in the history of sculpture. Its durability and technical versatility have made copper alloys such as bronze the chosen material for countless works of art, both utilitarian and purely aesthetic.

Though the art of making elaborate figurative bronze sculpture, perfected by the Greeks and Romans, diminished during the Byzantine period, copper alloys continued to be used for utilitarian purposes. Lot 3 is a rare example of an early Byzantine bronze object decorated with figural scenes. Used for burning incense within ecclesiastical or domestic contexts, the vessel displays six scenes from the life of Christ in relief, including the Nativity and the Crucifixion. Its function is both practical and visual, and the relative ease with which these objects were made contributed to the dissemination of Christian imagery. Though the figural style is somewhat naive, it is imbued with remarkable detail and animation.

With the Italian Renaissance came a renewed interest in the technical potential of bronze sculpture, and the humanist environments of cities such as Padua created a demand for small-scale bronzes with an intellectual appeal. The Atlas inkwell is a prime example of the Paduan habit of combining engaging thematic content with a utilitarian purpose. Representing Atlas supporting the globe of heaven, the bronze functions as both an oil lamp and an inkwell. Thanks to the invention of producing multiple casts from single moulds, each bronze utensil from the Severo workshop could be differentiated with the use of interchangeable stock elements. Objects such as these were perfect accessories to the 16th-century scholar’s studiolo – the subjects of lively intellectual discussion, as well as useful writing tools.

By the time of the great Mannerist sculptor Giambologna, ambitious small-scale bronze figures had become trophy objects in royal and princely collections, including those of the Medici rulers of Florence and the Holy Roman Emperors. The luxury status of such ‘statement’ bronzes continued into the 17th century, when Giambologna’s Florentine workshop was inherited by Pietro and Ferdinando Tacca. Around 1640, Ferdinando Tacca conceived a series of bronze groups representing mythological and literary subjects, united by dramatic tension and an air of theatricality (Tacca was also the architect of the Florentine Teatro della Pergola). Lot 67 is an exceedingly rare cast of one of these groups, Apollo and Daphne. It is one of only two known examples; the other is in the Louvre, having been gifted to King Louis XIV by his landscape gardener.

The popularity of bronze’s unique potential for reproduction continues into the present day. It is here exemplified by a 1984 cast of an écorché (i.e. skinless) horse, cast from a late 16th century bronze model in the collection of the University of Edinburgh. The creator of the cast, Mario Pastori, was a member of the fifth generation of Italian founders and craftsmen of the highest quality, specialising in the lost wax technique, and casting works by sculptors including Alberto Giacometti and Henry Moore. The Torrie Horse was one of his last commissions. Casting a full scale replica of the Horse from one mould was such a technical feat that Pastori was to describe the experience as 'receiving my Field Marshal's Baton'. He died shortly afterwards.

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